My colleague and friend, Dr. Laurie Anderson, writes this essay for thecanadaproject regarding Scotland’s vote in the recent UK elections:
“For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
– From The Declaration of Arbroath 1320
The power shift that took place in Scottish politics last week was – insert your favourite superlative – seismic, epochal, tectonic, monumental, unprecedented. It was all of these things and more. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) – once dismissed as a fringe party for the heather-rooted naïve and nostalgic – ended the hegemony of the Scottish Labour Party, virtually wiping them off the electoral map. More people voted for the SNP than any party in the history of Scottish elections. The extent of the landslide apparently surprised even the most ambitious nationalists. So, what’s this all about?
Well, from my perch far removed, at least three things, I think. One, Labour, the traditional electoral refuge for the Scots, the party historically seen as the best defense against the aloof Westminster elite, started to act like their London colleagues. During last year’s independence vote, Scottish Labour championed the “Better Together” campaign, led by former Prime Minister and notable Scot, Gordon Brown.
The pro UK vote (narrowly) won the independence referendum but Scottish Labour lost the people’s support. They backed the winning horse but ultimately lost the bet. Labour was crushed by the SNP, reduced to a single seat in the UK parliament, while SNP leaped from six seats in 2010 to a staggering 56. Take Scottish voters for granted at your peril.
Second, I think it would be wrong to suggest that last week’s election results were all about rejecting the Scottish Labour party. To do that would be to downplay the game-changing contribution of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s whip-smart, media savvy leader. Sturgeon’s calm, personable but resolute persona was a galvanizing force, while her predecessor, the combative, prickly-like-a-thistle Alex Salmond, was more likely to polarize than unite. Nicola Sturgeon’s brilliantly run campaign was a decisive factor in last week’s results (I’ll leave the comparisons with Alberta’s new NDP premier, Rachel Notley, for those more versed in political analysis. I do know both of them have a massive orientation job ahead, from schooling dozens of neophyte politicians in parliamentary procedures, to helping them find the washrooms).
Third, it was about putting the pressure back on the Tories’ David Cameron. During the campaign – as Sturgeon’s credibility soared (not just in Scotland, but across the UK) – Cameron hastily promised even more devolved authority to Scotland. Failure to deliver on these pledges could make the case for Scottish independence even stronger (nothing stirs up the Scots like a promise unfilled by the English!). The vote on whether the UK stays in the EU (within two years) is another pressure point for David Cameron. Referendum results that support the UK’s reduced or complete withdrawal from the EU would surely embolden Scottish nationalists, making another independence vote likely.
The final takeaway from last week’s UK election results is that the political process is alive and well in the UK. Record turnouts, massive engagement by first time voters (take that cynics!), and elected officials of all stripes being held accountable for their words and deeds. It wasn’t voter apathy that caused last week’s electoral tsunami, but millions of citizens getting involved in the democratic process.